September 2020 marks my 50th anniversary on motorcycles—a momentous occasion by any standard. Oddly enough, it didn’t have to happen.
Unlike so many of my riding friends, I was not captivated by motorcycles growing up. I noticed them on the road, but I did not think about them much. My dad always mentioned how impressed he was by the quietness of BMWs whenever one whispered by on the highway.
In the hills behind my home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, my friends and I would watch the big kids ride their big four-stroke singles from England up and down the hillclimbs. Again, although I was impressed, it never occurred to me that I would do that. It just seemed like another world, and one that I was not part of. They might as well have been performing heart transplants.
Even as my friends would get Honda Mini Trails and lawnmower-powered Taco minibikes, it just didn’t seem like riding a motorcycle was in the cards for me. They seemed very expensive, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask my parents to buy one for me.
Then, as the summer of 1970 wound down, my parents bought a travel trailer, and our nuclear family of three planned a trip to Utah for a week. This was quite a change, as we had never had a family vacation longer than a weekend.
My father was a business salesman and, as he would tell you, if he wasn’t working, he wasn’t making money. That made it difficult for him to justify an extended vacation. Yet, in August 1970, we had our one-and-only traditional summer vacation trip.
Along the way to Utah, we stopped at my dad’s sister’s house in Las Vegas and picked up a thrashed 1962ish Honda CA100 Super Cub he had arranged to buy from my cousin Dava. It didn’t have any paperwork, the lights didn’t work, the fairing and chain guard were gone, the rear tire was flat, and its 49cc motor didn’t run—he paid her $50 for it (about $350 now). I have no idea why Dava had it, or what she did with it, but it was mine now—entirely out of the blue.
During that week in August, I tried in vain to get the Super Cub’s motor running. Given my absolute lack of knowledge about motorcycles, that meant I had three lines of attack. I put gas in it. I kicked it incessantly. I pushed it until I dropped from exhaustion.
Nothing worked. There wasn’t a pop or a crackle. It was hopeless.
Had I gotten it running, then my 50th anniversary of riding would have been last month, but that was not to be.
Once we got home, my dad took the Super Cub to Rice Motors in West Covina to get it running. Although they were pretty much speaking a language with terminology I couldn’t comprehend, it seems that the little Honda needed its 13mm Keihin carburetor cleaned (they said they would “boil it out”) plus, a fresh bore and new piston.
When we picked it up, the Honda mill started with one kick from my dad. As it was going to be used as a dirt bike, my father had sprung for a new 2.25-inch-wide knobby rear tire to match the cracking ribbed front tire. The Super Cub was instantly a dirt bike.
My mom went to Gemco (later bought by Target) and bought me a $10 red metal flake open-face helmet—about $65, adjusted for inflation. That was it for protective equipment—no goggles, boots, or gloves. A t-shirt, Levi’s, and tennis shoes completed my riding gear.
We loaded the Super Cub into our travel trailer and went to Butterfield Country, east of Temecula—now Vail Lake Resort. It was an amazing place, with a lake, horses, a clubhouse for kids, and motorcycle trails.
At our campsite, my dad showed me how to start the 50cc motor. Amazingly, I was able to kick it over and get it running—I found out what a choke was, for instance. The transmission was a three-speed manual heel-toe shift design, with an automatic centrifugal clutch. So, all I had to do was stomp it into gear and twist the throttle.
With minimal instruction, I was sent on my way, alone, onto the dirt roads and trails of Butterfield Country. This was definitely akin to being thrown to the deep end, as I was quickly swallowed up by countless more-experienced kids on faster purpose-built dirt bikes, such as swarms of Hodaka Super Rats.
I quickly learned how to stay out of the way, and which trails were out of my league. It was daunting, but I stuck with it. That first weekend, I rode pretty much from sunrise to sunset, only taking a break for lunch. By the end of the weekend, I was proficient enough that I was genuinely having fun, rather than just making sure I survived.
Amazingly, although I was enjoying riding a motorcycle, the lack of a suitable machine meant I didn’t quite feel like I was a member of the dirt biking fraternity. That would take until Christmas 1970. I’ll pick the story back up in our December 2020 issue.